Scientific advances in fertility are exciting but also alarming

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

With bewildering speed, medical developments are rocking the science of reproduction and the very foundations of life.

It is almost 40 years since the first ‘test tube’ baby was born.

Now In vitro fertilisation is widely used and has enabled women who are past their menopause to become pregnant.

In the 1980s, gestational surrogacy – in which the surrogate mother is implanted with an embryo created by IVF – was pioneered. Within five years it had led to a legal case in which a surrogate mother refused to give the baby to its parents.

In 1996 a sheep was cloned, and there have since been reported attempts at human cloning but no confirmed cases of it.

Meanwhile growing numbers of women in the UK are aborting babies as a result of blood tests that can detect genetic abnormalities during pregnancy.

And there have long been ethical problems with other aspects of reproduction, such as artificial insemination by donors, given that in some cases small numbers of men can produce multiple offspring in a small geographical area.

Yesterday approval was given for Britain to become the first western nation in which scientists can edit the genes of human embryos. The regulator (HFEA) has stipulated that altered embryos must not be inserted into any woman. There is merit in the aim to replace a bad gene but critics fear a slippery slope towards genetically modified “designer babies”.

These are exciting but also alarming times of rapid medical and scientific advancement. Interfering with traditional reproduction methods has far-reaching consequences.

Things have moved far beyond a child born to, and brought up by, its natural mother and father. We do not know how these cultural trends will end, or what they will bring.

Eugenics is the study of altering the characteristics of a population by interfering with their genetic makeup. The notion was abused by 20th century racists. We need to guard against modern conduct that would use science with similar intent.